On Thursday, Oxford Dictionaries announced post-truth is its Word of the Year (WOTY) for 2016.
post-truth (adj.): relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
In a year of major political upheaval, it seems a fitting term.
The term was added to OxfordDictionaries.com this month, with a first usage dating to 1992 by Steve Tesich in The Nation:
We, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.
I like WOTY contests because they give us an idea of what our language community has been concerned with over the past year, especially when you look at the results of three or four contests. Clearly, our minds have been on truth in politics. Oxford Dictionaries notes that use of post-truth spiked during the Brexit vote in June and again when Donald Trump was named the Republican presidential nominee in July.
“It’s not surprising that our choice reflects a year dominated by highly-charged political and social discourse,” says Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Dictionaries. “Fuelled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time.”
In fact, Oxford Dictionaries’ research shows that post-truth was used 2,000% more in 2016 than in 2015.
Yet I don’t think we’ve overused it yet. A search in Google News for all of 2016 to date (before news of Oxford’s choice was widespread) turns up 18,600 results, while a similar search in Google Books returns 2,790. Meanwhile, the Corpus of Contemporary American Usage, with 520 million words from texts published in 1990 through 2015, doesn’t have a single instance.
Still, Oxford Dictionaries’ short list shows how much of an influence politics has been on language. WOTY candidates (and Oxford’s definitions) included:
- alt-right (n): an ideological grouping associated with extreme conservative or reactionary viewpoints, characterized by a rejection of mainstream politics and by the use of online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content.
- Brexiteer (n, informal): a person who is in favour of the United Kingdom withdrawing from the European Union.
- glass cliff (n): used with reference to a situation in which a woman or member of a minority group ascends to a leadership position in challenging circumstances where the risk of failure is high.
- woke (adj, US informal): alert to injustice in society, especially racism.
What word do you think accurately represents 2016? Nominate your choices for the American Dialect Society’s contest. Nominations are taken all year, and the public is welcome to attend the final vote, which will be held on Thursday, January 5, 2017, in Austin, Texas.
How accurate have WOTY choices been in the past? See our archive of WOTY posts.